Which way, Canada? Which way the world?

Posted by on March 10, 2019
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Those of you who follow this blog, as opposed to simply stumbling upon it, will have noticed that the frequency of my posts has fallen precipitously over the last year or so.  Never a frequent poster, my output has dwindled from once every ten days, to once a month, and now to once or so a quarter.  Have I run out of things to blog about?  Am I just running down in that inevitable decline towards final silence?  Fact is, I’ve been busy with other things, and the urge to blog has lessened.

Partly, my decision two years ago to not spend time talking about the President of the United States left me with many matters of environmental and political importance off limits.  Partly, the end of the Harper era in Canada left me with fewer environmental outrages close to home to rail against.  Partly, the pace of climate change, and of global environmental degradation in general, does not sustain frequent blog posts on the topic.  The news continues to appear.  The news is still bad.  But talking about it begins to sound repetitious.  Instead, I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together in a coherent way and create something more substantial than a blog post here or there.  I won’t say I am writing a book yet.  But it is either a book or a lot of unpublished words on pages.

Cartoonist Dave Whamond captures the moment when Canadians realized Justin Trudeau was not all that different from other politicians.  Image © Dave Whamond.

So why post something today?  SNC-Lavalin.  I’m worried that Canadians, alternately agonizing or celebrating over the fact that Captain Canada does not walk on water, are going to do something perilously stupid in a few months’ time when they vote.  The SNC-Lavalin affair is really just so much tempest in a teacup, and yet it has revealed, surprise, surprise, that our Prime Minister is a politician.  Did we really think that Justin Trudeau was not a politician?  Do we want our country led by someone who is not a politician?  Have we lost sight of the policies and the achievements of his government as we beat ourselves up about the fact that he appears to have thought political and economic considerations might be important when weighing up the best approach to dealing with the transgressions of a major economic player in our country?  (Incidentally, how does one do business in Libya without paying bribes to government leaders?  That’s the crime engineering firm SNC-Lavalin is accused of, and nobody is accusing Trudeau of seeking to prevent SNC being punished.)  Sure, the shining suit of armor has been tarnished.  But is that such a bad thing?  Maybe we are removing our rose-colored glasses at last and can assess Justin’s goals and methods and compare them with those of his erstwhile opponents in the coming national election.  I’ll pick this thought up again after I’ve done the responsible thing as an environmental scientist and reminded us all of where we stand in early 2019.

One of the few adults left standing in North American politics: Barack Obama speaking in Vancouver 5th March 2019.  Photo © Matt Borck.

At Last!  An Adult!

One of the few remaining adults on the planet made a brief speaking tour to western Canada this week, with stops in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.  Billed as “A Conversation with President Barack Obama” the talks allowed him to paint a global canvas as he mused about international relations, inequality, globalization, integrity in government, and climate change.  On climate change he was very clear.  He noted the range of environmental changes that climate change is triggering, conjuring up images of half a billion people in South Asia suddenly made climate refugees because the monsoons have collapsed, and contrasting that with the present instances of thousands of migrants fleeing environmental disasters in places round the world.  He spoke clearly and simply, saying nothing particularly new, but perhaps providing a different context – he spoke as a former political leader rather than a nerdy scientist.

 “At the current pace that we are on, the scale of tragedy that will consume humanity is something we have not seen in perhaps recorded history if we don’t do something about it.”  Or again: “This is coming, and I have two daughters who in their lifetime will see these effects. I don’t have grandchildren yet, but for those of you who do, it will make life very difficult for them even if they are wealthy and can somehow insulate themselves temporarily.” 

At his Calgary stop, he did not shy away from the future of the fossil fuel industry.  Acknowledging that he was an “old-fashioned guy” who still believed in using facts to draw conclusions, he talked about the need to transition from use of fossil fuels, and noted the need to build recognition, not just generally, but in places such as Alberta, that newer energy sources need to be developed and older ones have to be cleaned up.  But he also admitted that the fossil fuel sector in Alberta had long been an important part of the economy: ““It is important for our politics to take into account all the jobs and the economy that is generated from energy,” he said, dismissing the idea of a shutdown of the business for the sake of the environment. “That’s not going to happen.”  But we do need a coherent plan that gets us to a new place in 20 years or so (I think his timeline is too generous), and he suggested Canada, like many countries, has been “paying lip service” to its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Reading about Obama’s visit, I wished it would have been possible to simply put him back in the Presidency in 2016 for a third term – the election of his successor was so clearly a flawed process that I’m sure a few legal minds and government historians could have developed a plausible rationale to justify such a thing.  Sorry, Michelle, four more years of White House duty please.  But fairy tale solutions seldom occur in real life.

The State of the Climate

And what is the state of the climate and environment in early 2019?  David Wallace-Wells, journalist and author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, has recently pointed out that we have done more damage to the environment since the United Nations established its Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent of IPCC, in 1992, than we did in all the millennia that preceded that date.  Or, to put it a different way, “We have now done more damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance”.

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year old Swedish leader.  Last September, furious at the lack of attention to climate change from Swedish politicians, she went on strike, refusing to go back to school.  She sat down alone outside the Swedish legislature with a rucksack of books, snacks and home-made signs saying ‘School strike for Climate’.  Over subsequent days, she built a crowd.  Eventually she went back to school, but still strikes every Friday.  And tweets under #FridaysForFuture (the Canadian website is here).  Her actions have inspired a worldwide movement by youth, tens of thousands of them around the world.  A worldwide strike is planned on March 15th (Unfortunately winter break for Ontario schools falls during that week).  These signs of commitment by younger citizens are inspiring.  I hope the strike on the 15th is a crushing success.  I hope that those of us a bit older than 16 will pause to reflect – do we really have to wait for the 16-year olds to reach voting age, or enter politics themselves before we will start to act serious about climate change?

The Steady Drip of New Climate Science

When it comes to actual evidence of climate change or environmental, economic and health consequences of same, there has been a steady drip of new science, none of which makes the climate problem any less extreme than it looked a year or so ago.  Some of the articles being published in Science and Nature are clear attempts to argue for an urgency that is not yet perceived by the majority of politicians or policy wonks.  For example, a team of leading climate and environmental scientists, mostly based in the USA, led by Christa Anderson of World Wildlife Fund, published a ‘Policy Forum’ article in the March 1st issue of Science, titled ‘Natural climate solutions are not enough’.  Natural climate solutions (NCS), such as more effective forest management, reforestation, and changes in agricultural practices that collectively sequester carbon in soils at a greater rate, or reduce agricultural methane emissions, are useful weapons in the battle to slow climate change, and all the authors had previously argued for their value.  But in this article, they came together to put forth a clear statement that use of NCS alone was not going to be sufficient to bring climate change under control.

I was surprised that they needed to make this statement or put it out in such a prominent place (for scientists).  It has always been obvious to me that emissions due to use of fossil fuels were the single largest cause of anthropogenic climate change, and that we could not wrestle this change to the ground without curtailing those emissions.  It seems however, that some policy experts and politicians have been looking to use of NCS as a way of delaying action to reduce use of fossil fuels.  Because that is what we usually do – kick difficult problems down the road, leaving them for the next group of leaders to deal with (or, in the case of climate change, the next generation).  As Justin Trudeau famously said at an energy industry conference in Houston in 2017, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.  The resource will be developed. Our job is to ensure that this is done responsibly, safely, and sustainably”.

A second technical article I was surprised to see was a detailed examination of the scientific evidence that greenhouse gas emissions were a form of air pollution, and therefore within the purview of the US EPA.  You’ll remember that during the Obama presidency, this fact was used to justify new regulations on power plants, and other measures, to combat GHG emissions, that would be enforced by EPA.  That was the only way Obama, with a solidly Republican Congress, could advance any climate change actions in that country.  The current, strangely orange occupant of the White House has, of course, had the EPA repeal the regulations that were put in place, to the considerable approval of the fossil fuel industry, especially the operators of all those inefficient coal-fired power plants.

The article, by a 15-member team of US-based climate and environmental scientists led by Philip Duffy of Woods Hole Research Center, appeared in the February 8th issue of Science, under the title “Strengthened scientific support for the Endangerment Finding for atmospheric greenhouse gases”.  The Clean Air Act (CAA) requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate air pollutants when the EPA Administrator finds that they “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.  The Endangerment Finding was the finding by the EPA that greenhouse gases did pose a threat to human health and welfare that had been upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007, even if the EPA under Scott Pruitt’s backwards leadership had managed to renounce this conclusion.

The article consists of a detailed reexamination of the evidence supporting each of the eight way in which EPA had formerly concluded greenhouse gases endangered public health and well-being in the USA, plus four additional ways for the science was now sufficiently robust.  In all cases the evidence had strengthened over the intervening decade.  The illustration I found most damning was a county by county survey of where in the USA impacts of climate change were likely to be most severe.  As always seems to happen, the less wealthy counties are the ones most at risk.  Funny how wealth provides insulation for bad environmental news, isn’t it?

Map and chart from Duffy article showing the economic impact of present and future climate change across the USA, county by county.  The economic impact is greatest in those counties which are least wealthy to begin with.  Another example of how wealth seems to insulate against environmental problems.  Image © Science.

My surprise at seeing this article was that it had always been obvious that the changed decision by EPA once the AFP (alternate facts presidency) came into play had nothing to do with the science or the reality of climate change.  I was also surprised that it was published now, given the growing chance that we will have another five years of AFP before the USA can possibly return to reality.  Why did the scientists bother?

Nitrogen – Another Problem

In the same issue of Science, there was a short ‘Perspectives” article by Carly Stevens of Lancaster University, UK, called Nitrogen in the Environment.  In it, Stevens begins by pointing out that while nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, reactive nitrogen (Nr), the nitrogen in the form of oxides and other organic molecules, and that is accessible to plants, and via them, to animals, is often in short supply.  Such Nr is naturally formed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria or by lightning, but over the past century, its supply has been greatly increased by human production of fertilizers, so that Nr availability is roughly twice what it used to be.  This now more abundant Nr is not uniformly distributed around the planet, and it is creating both problems of excess and of depletion.  In many places excess Nr pollutes aquatic systems resulting in anoxia and algal blooms, worsens low-altitude air pollution, and contributes as a greenhouse gas to climate change.  In others, deficient in Nr, crop yields are seriously reduced.  Stevens points to the need to curtail use of fertilizers, to use fertilizers more effectively, and to manage agricultural waste, particularly domestic animal waste, far more effectively than we mostly do.  At the same time, in impoverished countries in which land has been over-grazed and mis-managed, and in which farmers lack the resources to obtain needed fertilizers, there is a growing need to provide additional Nr.  Stevens argues that humanity has exceeded the planetary threshold for reactive nitrogen and reminds us that our assault on nature is not limited to climate change.  Incidentally, the number of dead zones in the coastal ocean (one clear consequence of this excess Nr), estimated to be less than 50 in 1950 and “more than 400” in 2008, was reported as more than 500 in an article in the 5th January 2018 issue of Science by a team of 22 marine scientists led by Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on Chesapeake Bay.  Most of these are due to pollution of aquatic systems by the Nr in sewage and agricultural runoff.  They are represented as red dots bordering most of the shorelines of the planet in the map accompanying Breitburg’s article.

Map from Breitburg’s Science article showing the 500+ dead zones in coastal waters as red dots.  Also shown, in blue, are deep-water regions of equally low oxygen content (<2mg per litre) caused primarily by ocean warming and other climate change effects.  Map © Science.

Deoxygenation of the Oceans

The main focus of Breitburg’s article, however, is on the decline in ocean oxygen content that has been going on for the past 50 years due primarily to impacts of climate change on the open ocean.  Warming reduces the solubility of oxygen in seawater, accounting for about 15% of the overall, open-ocean depletion.  Warming also enhances the stratification of the oceans, resulting in less transfer of oxygen from atmosphere to ocean.  This is believed to account for the remaining 85%, although increased rates of metabolism of marine organisms, including microbes, also deplete available oxygen.  And this brings me to one of my pet concerns (if you can have pet concerns): repeatedly, we see science demonstrating the inherent connectedness of environment, and of our destructive effects on environment.  Increased production of Nr leads to more and larger coastal marine dead zones, plus nitrous oxide air pollution leading to climate warming.  Warming reduces oceanic oxygen content directly, and through the enhanced metabolic activity of marine organisms.  We sure know how to make a mess.

By the way, given the evidence of growing ocean deoxygenation, it should come as no surprise that among the articles I’ve noticed in recent issues of Science was one by Christopher Free of Rutgers University and five colleagues which appeared in the 1st March issue: Impacts of historical warming on marine fisheries production.  They report that ocean warming is forcing redistribution of predators and prey, changes in metabolic rates and shifts in primary production, all of which impact overall fishery yield.  They calculate that over the last 80 years, global fishery production (what the populations were capable of, not what the fishery catch was) has declined by 4.1%, but that this decline varies a lot from region to region, so that some places, such as the East China Sea, have experienced losses of 15 to 35% in fishery yield.  I fear we are on the cusp of learning how our impacts on the global ocean are going to harm us directly through the influence of the ocean on our lives.

And Back to Canadian Politics

Meanwhile, average CO2 in our atmosphere above Mauna Loa reached 411.75 ppm in February, 3.43 ppm higher than in February 2018, and winter here in Muskoka and through much of central and eastern North America has been dominated by the vagaries of the polar vortex.  Which all brings me full circle, back to Justin Trudeau’s current troubles.

It appears that Trudeau and his advisors have been concerned that the giant engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin, which as a major civil engineering firm depends heavily on government contracts in Canada and outside, may be in a particularly difficult spot if found guilty in our courts of having paid out lots of bribes in order to do business in Libya.  Their concerns may stem purely from worry over the implications for the Canadian economy and employment were the country to fail or have to downsize.  They may stem from the fact that SNC-Lavalin has apparently been a significant donor to Liberal coffers over the years.  Or most likely, these concerns stem from a mixture of those economic and political reasons.  For a country the size of Canada, SNC-Lavalin does approach the ‘too big to fail’ category, which is real whether or not people like to recognize such facts of life.

Well, from the editorials, the hours of coverage in the media, and the tone of voice used by commentators and political opponents when discussing this issue, you’d think the Trudeau government and Justin Trudeau in particular, are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors the likes of which have never been seen before in Canada.  Too horribly corrupt to govern.  Too much like the cabal of crooks that form the Cabinet of that country to the south of us.  Such attitudes are concerning, given that we have an election coming in 6 months time.

I’m not condoning the actions that may or may not have occurred within the Trudeau cabinet over the last several months.  I view them, assuming they occurred, as part of the sausage making which is politics.  I suspect that some members of Mr. Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ government may have been inexperienced enough to recognize that even a sunny ways government has to make sausages – it’s what governments do, usually in private spaces away from the media and the public.  And I can even be strongly disapproving of the role of money in politics, even while recognizing that it does have a role and that role is unlikely to disappear completely.  But I do think, now that most everyone has vented, it may be time to get back to thinking about the need to govern Canada, and to ask serious questions about policies and likely performance of the various possible governments being offered at the coming election.

While I still am deeply disappointed at the failure of the Liberal government to replace first-past-the-post voting with something more representative, I recognize that at the present time, and using our present electoral system, there are really only two possibilities for government following October 2019:  the Liberals and the Conservatives.  Take a look at Canada’s Conservative Party.  If anything, it has moved further to the right than it was when the Hon. Stephen Harper was our Prime Minister.  And before SNC-Lavalin reared its messy head, the Conservatives seemed to be preparing to mount an election based on moving backwards on all things environmental, helped along by the right-leaning conservative governments in several of our provinces.  Now is not the time to be electing a right-wing government in Canada, one that will cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, roll back environmental regulations, avoid doing anything serious on climate change, and in numerous other ways maximize the benefits of the fortunate few to hell with the rest of us or those who follow us in the future.

There is a corollary to this perspective, of course.  Now is the time for the Trudeau Liberals to move forward on the plans they have for dealing with climate change and our other affronts to environment, not the time to soft-peddle or reduce them.  Canada needs to lead on climate change if only because we sit next door to the USA and can provide a healthy contrast to what the AFP government down there is doing.  There is much to do to bring Canada’s achievements on the climate file in line with the sunny ways aspirations.

It is also a good time for all Canadians to recognize that, no matter how nice it might have been (to some eyes, at least), the tar sands development was never going to grow as rapidly or to the size that proponents envisioned and is now moving towards its eventual closing.  Sunny ways Trudeau also got into trouble at a town hall in Ontario in January 2017 (just a couple of months before he spoke, and got into trouble, in Houston) when he said, “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy.  We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time. And in the meantime, we have to manage that transition”. 

Canadians, and Albertans especially, will benefit if that transition is managed properly with a planned scaling back rather than an abrupt collapse, and a coordinated development of new industries to make use of the talents now invested in pulling bitumen out of the ground.  As for SNC-Lavalin… let’s keep that episode as the teacup tempest it really is.

A bad week or two, compared to a bad several years.  Cartoon © Tim Dolighan

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